With my second novel “The Invisible” being published today in Australia, here is the CityNews Canberra interview by Nick Overall.
Tracing an invisible life of crime in outback Greece
HOW do you find someone who doesn’t exist?
It’s the question at the centre of Peter Papathanasiou’s new crime thriller “The Invisible” – a book inspired by a man he encountered in the far-flung corners of Northern Greece who lived without a scrap of official paperwork proving his existence.
No driver’s licence, no credit card, no address, no birth record, no social media, not even a library card. In our modern world, it seems almost impossible.
When Papathanasiou came across this strange figure, who the locals described as “invisible”, he knew he had the idea for his next book.
“This guy was charismatic, he spoke four languages, and yet nobody really knew what his surname was,” says Peter.
“He claimed he had four different kids to four different women and claimed he was born in four different places and you didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t and that was part of his charm.
“For all intents and purposes, this person doesn’t exist, but he knew all the right people, he could grease the right palms to get what he wanted and I thought if you’re going to tell a story about a character like that then they’ve gotta go missing.”
In “The Invisible” Det-Sgt George Manolis is forced to hunt down a missing person who, like the curious man Peter had encountered, is all but untraceable.
It’s the sequel to last year’s “The Stoning”, a book that saw Papathanasiou labelled a “brilliant new name in Australian crime” and a plot described by renowned author Chris Hammer as “outback noir with the noir dialled right up”.
But while his first novel peeled back Australia’s cultural layers to reveal a darker side of the country, in “The Invisible”, Papathanasiou’s central detective travels home to the sparse and untamed northern regions of Greece.
It’s no coincidence that it also happens to be Peter’s own birthplace.
“It’s very different from the Greece that most people know. It’s a place that people fly over when they go to Athens or the Greek Islands or other parts of Europe,” he says.
“There’s power stations, electricity production, coal mining. Life in that part of the world is slow and contemplative, meditative. It’s essentially outback Greece.”
In many ways, Peter says “The Invisible” was his chance to bring the place he was born to an Australian audience who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it.
“The untamed frontier setting for ‘The Invisible’ is where I was born, where my family still lives, where I regularly visit, and which is generally not seen by outsiders,” he says.
“The tiny fishing community of Psarades formed the basis for the mythical village of Glikonero. With decorated churches and eerie forests and reclusive locals, I thought this was a really compelling setting in which to set a crime novel, and one that I was uniquely positioned to write.”
It’s a far cry from his home tucked away in Hackett where he lives today with his wife and three children.
Both crime and fiction are long-held passions for the 48-year-old, having studied criminal law at the ANU and creative writing at City University in London.
“I think the interesting thing about crime is this idea of a puzzle,” he says.
“You can say a lot about society through the prism of a crime because things get uncovered and questions get asked about communities and families.
“As a crime writer you’ve got to create that puzzle, which I do find challenging, but fascinating.”
It’s no surprise Peter is already in talks about possible screen adaptations for “The Stoning” and “The Invisible”. A third book in his noir-laden universe is already in the works that will see his fractured detective return to Australia.
While outback noir in Australia has more than hit its stride, it’s Peter’s hope that the “Greek Noir” in his new book may encourage others to explore the unique setting.
“There aren’t many books like ‘The Invisible’ in the market, which makes it one that I’m very proud to share with readers,” he says.
“In five years’ time it might be the only thing set in the area or, who knows, it might kick the door down.”
Here is The Greek Herald interview for “The Stoning” by John Voutos, which was published on 4 October 2021.
Peter Papathanasiou’s new book addresses lack of Greek representation in outback noir
A son of Greek migrant milk bar owners was yet to feature as the protagonist of an outback noir novel.
Peter Papathanasiou’s crime fiction debut The Stoning shatters this glass ceiling.
It follows Detective Sergeant Georgios Manolis as he attempts to investigate the murder of a schoolteacher in the outback town of Cobb.
Manolis instead uncovers the secrets, trauma, and prejudice of a ‘town gone to hell’ in a ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ yet honest way.
Greek migrants were central to the development of outback Australia, but The Stoning captures a time when that wasn’t part of the public attitude.
Papathanasiou explains to The Greek Herald why it’s important to stay true to this historical context, why Greek representation is important, and how it helps us feel “more human.”
Q&A with Peter Papathanasiou
Q. Tell us about the “late nights, weekends, sacrifices, joys, and anguish” that went into writing The Stoning.
It doesn’t need to be said that it takes a long time to write a book. And you need to find that time… somehow. Given I’ve a growing family with three energetic little boys and still work a full-time day job, time for writing usually gets pushed to the periphery: late nights and weekends. I’m pretty sure almost all of The Stoning was written after midnight when it was nice and quiet; the words checked that the coast was clear of all distraction, and then gradually crept onto the page. But I’m getting better at multitasking now given that there appears to be even less time for writing, and my sons are probably now used to seeing me perched behind my laptop in different locations around the house.
The sacrifices were in foregoing other things I might’ve been doing when I was instead sitting and writing: going out, socialising, exercising, holidays, and also family time when I needed to focus on a particular chapter. The joy came in seeing each chapter finished, the sense of pride I felt, and of course when the book finally came together as a whole and found publishers. And the anguish was in overcoming writer’s block and also finding the right publisher. But there is now even further joy in seeing such positive reviews, and also in developing a screen adaptation, which is already in the works.
Q. Your second book marks a departure from the nonfiction writing we know you for – what got you into outback noir?
For my Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree from The Australian National University (ANU), I wrote my thesis in criminal law, so I’ve always been interested in exploring the darker side of life, the motivations that people have for committing crimes, the nature of events and investigations and evidence. I’ve also previously worked in criminal intelligence, which was perhaps the most interesting job I’ve had.
Crime writing is also a very popular and marketable genre, both as books and on the screen (TV and films), so the readership is strong. A crime exposes what happens in society, it allows a writer to explore many subjects and themes through the prism of a bad event.
In The Stoning, major themes that I explore include immigration, culture, race, religion, identity, assimilation, masculinity, sexuality, addiction, history, colonisation and nationalism. And when you pair my LLB with my Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing from City, University of London, you get a crime writer!
I’ve generally found the outback to be a far more evocative setting to tell a story and create interesting new characters than an urban location, and is particularly amenable to a crime story given how treacherous the environment can be. All the Australian literature I read growing up seemed to be set in the country, so that likely influenced me too.
Q. “Dark” and “gritty” have been used to define The Stoning. How would you define the book?
Dark and gritty are pretty accurate descriptions for The Stoning. I would also describe the book as disruptive, disturbing, confronting, raw, divisive, human and necessary.
Q. How does the story’s setting stay true and accurate to the historical context of outback Australia?
It was difficult to give much more than a flavour of the outback’s history in my novel; the focus stayed more firmly on the crime and current-day story. During the 1950s, local Aboriginal communities were loaded onto tractors, taken from their ancestral lands, and moved to rural communities; many died due to such forced migrations.
Another significant feature of country Australia was the tradition of Greek milk bars and cafés that were the centrepiece of many small towns from the 1930s to 1970s. The businesses gave Greek migrants an economic and social foothold in their new homeland, and the ability to maintain family culture and catering traditions within a shared workplace. More recently, immigration detention centres have been established in remote outback locations to stimulate struggling rural economies.
Q. How does The Stoning portray the prejudice and racism Greeks experience(d) in outback Australia? Georgios Manolis, the book’s protagonist, is the son of a Greek migrant to Australia and milk bar owner. Is this a deliberately realist approach to Greek Australian representation? Why is representation important?
The character of Georgios Manolis draws some characteristics from my brothers in Greece, but I wanted to ground his backstory in that of typical Greek immigrants to Australia post-WWII. It was not uncommon for them to set up businesses in Australia, with milk bars very popular in outback towns. On the one hand, these businesses were very profitable and popular. But on the other, there is always a level of suspicion and prejudice that came with the introduction of an unfamiliar entity; they didn’t even serve Greek food!
The topic of racism in Australia goes well beyond the scope of this interview, but Europeans faced their fair share of such experiences during this time as the “new Australians.” These unpalatable experiences have now been largely transferred to other ethnic minorities, which is something I always find a little funny because the true original Australian inhabitants were Indigenous Australians; everyone else is technically a “foreigner.”
This was also why it was so important for me to have the voice of an Indigenous Australian character in my novel, and why I created Constable Andrew “Sparrow” Smith, who is the main secondary character alongside Manolis. “It doesn’t matter where you came from,” says Sparrow dryly in The Stoning. “You’re all bloody invaders.” Using both the migrant perspective of Manolis and the indigenous perspective of Sparrow, I knew I could more fully and accurately explore the themes of culture, race, and migration in my book.
Q. Does your work generally aim to destigmatise or confront issues, especially in the Greek community? Whether towards topics like adoption, infertility, and even – as you wrote recently in the ABC – left-handedness?
I had a writing mentor who once told me they liked that I wrote about “important things”. It was said simply, almost in passing, but I think reflected the fact they read a lot of things that didn’t attempt to take on confronting issues, and that my writing wasn’t like that. By writing about such topics and sharing our experiences, I think we make more connections, feel more human and less alone in the world, and can hopefully even overcome some of the challenges in our lives. If I can do anything to help that process, and at the same time entertain, it is a very satisfying outcome for a writer.
Q. What can we expect from The Stoning’s successor? Are you currently working on it?
Yes, I am currently working on it! It will see Detective Sergeant Georgios Manolis return for another investigation. Crime novels tend to be amenable to the series format, which is then readily adaptable for the screen, but I am also seeing more standalone crime novels these days.
Q. I know you’ve said before that Little One might not hit our screens for a few years but is there any update you can give us?
Along with my creative team, I have been working hard on the screen adaptation of my debut book, a 2019 memoir about my international adoption called Little One. The project is being directed by acclaimed Greek-Australian filmmaker, Peter Andrikidis, who fell in love with the story. We have prepared a detailed breakdown of the project according to scenes and characters, tone and style, audience and themes, and are now preparing to write the script.
Little One showcases the strength of the Greek culture and the massive contribution to Australian society. The story of the Greeks’ arrival in Australia as post-WWII migrants has never before been seen on screen as drama. Little One is a working-class story about the growth of the labour force in Australia as powered by migrants. It is the story of one family, but it is also the story of the Greeks in Australia and how they helped build the country.
If the Greek generational community do not step up to tell our stories, nobody else will and the Greek immigration story will fade from memory. The story of Greek immigration to Australia has not yet been fully realised; Little One represents a great opportunity to ensure the record is accurate. The project will increase awareness of the contribution of a diversity of cultures to modern Australia by underscoring the significant contribution of migrants to the growth of our society, and reinforce the strong connection between Greece and Australia. We hope the Greek community of Australia can get behind this project and show their support.
Here is The Quietus review of “The Stoning” by Angus Batey, which was published on 16 October 2021.
The Stoning, is drier than a Martian canal, hotter than a smelting forge: the investigation into a Biblical execution in a poverty-ravaged outback town finds city-based cop George Manolis battling drunken incompetence, racial hatred, and decades of state-sponsored dysfunction. Papathanasiou writes unsparingly, confidently, and compellingly. His book is desperately bleak but possessed by a savage beauty.
This month, I was absolutely delighted to receive the news that my debut novel “The Stoning” has been nominated for the prestigious UK Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Daggers in 2022. It’s been nominated in two categories: the Gold Dagger, which is awarded to the best overall crime novel, and the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger, which is awarded to the best debut crime novel.
It’s pretty exciting to see my little book, which I first started writing in 2014, being received so positively, and in such fine company too. I’ve got to give big thanks to my incredible publishers MacLehose Press (UK) and Transit Lounge (Australia) for their fantastic support, and also my hard-working agent, Martin Shaw.
The Stoning Peter Papathanasiou MacLehose Press, €19.85
Peter Papathanasiou was born in northern Greece and adopted as a baby by an Australian family. Although he has written in a variety of forms for many years, The Stoning is his debut novel and, perhaps not surprisingly, his family background has provided a rich seam of material for the work.
Set in the small outback town of Cobb in Australia, the book opens with a local schoolteacher found taped to a tree and stoned to death. Molly Abbott was well liked in the community and no one can understand how – or why – this has happened. With the crime demonstrating all the hallmarks of medieval savagery, suspicion starts falling on the refugees housed at the new immigration detention centre recently built on the outskirts of the town.
Detective Sergeant Georgios ‘George’ Manolis, a Greek-Australian, goes reluctantly to his childhood hometown to investigate the crime, and while he remembers Cobb as a thriving bustling town where his Greek parents ran a successful cafe, he’s surprised to find it’s now a poor and derelict hovel destroyed by alcohol and drugs.
Faced with an antagonistic and uncaring local police chief, George has to carefully negotiate his local colleagues and the simmering anger of the community to try to figure out who killed Molly Abbott and, more importantly, why. Meanwhile, the detective also realises he needs to come to terms with some long-buried secrets from his past that he would prefer to forget.
Papathanasiou has succeeded in delivering a vivid and atmospheric novel that explores a wide range of contemporary themes such as culture, race and migration.
The writing is evocative, the characters are superbly drawn and the clever plot is layered and engaging. The scene setting is also superb, with palpable descriptions of a small, hot outback location that is simply drowning in oppression and unsure how to find its way back.
If you like your crime fiction dark, claustrophobic and thought-provoking with a strong sense of place then this book might be for you.
And, due to the success of this debut, the good news is that an Australian outback noir series featuring Detective Sergeant Manolis is now planned.